I’m not a romantic, but I’m learning. I think that’s why I picked up Tayari Jones’ book, An American Marriage; that, and I had a four hour drive from Memphis to my hometown in North Louisiana. Not one to be a fan of audio books, I didn’t give much credence to how far I’d get while riding. As a matter of fact, in the background of my Audible’s app, I’d already cued up Jidenna’s station on Pandora. I just knew that Tayari and I wouldn’t make the ride.
I was wrong. I didn’t listen to one single note on my way to Louisiana. That’s how good the book is. The start of the book is slow, but a good slow. It is nostalgic; I basked in it. There is something about Jones’ references to the time when I grew up– the New Jack Swing hits she quoted, the hairstyles she described, the HBCUs that carried the most clout back in the late 80’s and early ’90’s. I was there for all of it. The backstory slid me into my college years (which lasted way longer than they should have). I didn’t mind revisiting my own narrative through the narrative of the characters. And most delicious was the Louisiana setting. As I travelled to my own rural hometown of Bastrop, Louisiana, the book’s main character, Roy, reminisced on his own familial and communal ties to his home in Elo, (I think that’s the name of it) Louisiana. The weather described was spot on. The food was unmistakable. The culture was described with perfection. The values and thick, grittiness of my state was communicated flawlessly. It was bliss.
Once the story’s real arc began to swing upward, I was hooked. The slow roll uphill is a necessary trek, and while it takes up a lot of space on the page, I enjoyed it; it lulled me into a romance that was not too overdone or perfect or sexualized. I was good. I fell for the couple, just as they fell for each other, so when the devastating thing happened, I too became devastated. I was devastated that cops would bust into the hotel room of a couple who were comfortably in bed, drag them out of their sleep, and eventually accuse the husband of rape, when he clearly was not the culprit. I was devastated that this happens only eighteen months into their marriage, that the husband would be charged for the crime and sentenced to twelve years, that this has happened to many black men in America, and that this could ultimately happen to me.
Jones utilizes different modes of writing and voices without making the reader feel unsteady as the complexity of the narrative unfolds. The book slips from a traditional narrative to an epistolary style that does what letters are meant to do in novels like this. They woo us. They send us running to the metaphorical mailboxes of our mind, to collect a treasure to be opened. I became smitten with both Celestial (or Georgia) and Roy. I saw a new relationship beginning unlike the one they started before they got married. As Roy sits in jail and Celestial sits in disbelief, the two experience a complex and careful courtship through letters. In the beginning, the letters are mere niceties, greetings and salutations that held underneath the words something too delicate to touch. It seemed wrong for me as the reader to peek into their texts, though perfectly superficial, because I knew that Roy and Celestial were in a difficult situation. The letters were a farce, as they were meant to be. But as the relationship progressed, so did the realness of the words scribbled on paper. When the letters were longer, there was time for me to breathe, but the shorter each one got, the shorter my own breath became, for I knew that there was no way to stop what was coming. Silence of script; and yet, the book travels on.
Here is where Tayari Jones’ finesse in the novel works at its finest. She takes a chance in trusting the reader to stay with her through the shifts in writing she pursues and the different voices she inhabits. Without much warning I was privileged to get in the characters’ head, and, good or bad, I liked being there: the wrongly accused husband; the abandoned wife; the pining best friend (Andre). They all demanded a space. And for four straight hours, I gave them each their individual pulpit behind which they could take a text. I trusted the changes and was not in the least disappointed that I did.
Here is the thing. You should not ask me what the book An American Marriage is about. The title doesn’t hold it all; it can’t; it shouldn’t. The book is about many heartbreaking things. Love. Marriage. Petty In-Laws. Unrequited love. Need. Obligation. The criminal justice system. The frantic and unpredictable plight of Black men in America. The tragedy of the penal system. Baby daddies. Lies. Truths. And (loosely put) child support–no, maybe I should say, “the support a child needs.”
I mourned a little bit on my way back from Louisiana. I mourned because I knew that I’d have to get out of my vehicle and stop listening. Out of the thirty chapters, I’d gotten to chapter 23. I was grateful that upon arriving home, my children were hungry. It gave me the opportunity to hop right back into my truck and listen a bit longer. My drives to work were way shorter than I wanted them to be.
Even after I finished, I was in awe of the balance Tayari Jones was able to strike in not blaming anyone for the way things turn out. I found myself just as angry at Celestial as I was at Roy as I was at Andre’, but Jones pointed the finger at no one. I followed suit and was unable to lay blame at anyone’s feet. I think that disturbed me more than anything. I’d gotten to the end of the book and found (outside of the prison system, the judicial system, the police system) that truthfully, the fault lay with no one. Everyone’s story had merit and truth. And that’s what makes the book one to read.